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District 9 is science fiction 'near' its best (Review)

District 9 is science fiction near its best, and a very fun, though grotesque, film to watch. I say “near its best” because I left District 9 knowing I had experienced something fresh, new, and entertaining, but ultimately missing the emotional spark that separates a great film from a truly amazing cinema experience.

So it’s great, but not amazing. What do I mean by that? Well, District 9 is one of the best looking films this year and certainly the best action movie (though it has competition in Star Trek). Like great science fiction should, it uses its setting and characters to shine a light on many moral issues that continually trouble our society. Unfortunately, while it starts out as a big story tackling these big issues, writer and director Neill Blomkamp shifts focus during the second and third acts. Many of the intriguing moral and societal issues incubating during the opening sequences are left unhatched. Instead, explosive alien weaponry, chase scenes, and the somewhat selfish journey of a single character, Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) drive the majority of District 9’s plot. And I reiterate, this change in focus isn’t a bad thing, it just prevents District 9 from hatching into a truly grand adventure. Instead, it runs comfortably as a sci-fi action movie.

Here’s the back story, which is told in a faux-documentary style and news broadcasts. In 1982, a giant spaceship—Independence Day giant—came to Earth. Instead of landing where you think it might, Washington D.C. or Japan, it came to a dead stop above the city of Johannesburg, South Africa….and just sat there. After three months, the humans get tired of waiting and the military drills their way into the ship. Inside, they find hundreds of thousands emaciated aliens; this scene is starkly reminiscent of the inside of the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina ripped apart New Orleans, and is shocking. Fast forward 28 years and the honeymoon is over. There are now 1.8 million aliens, and they’re all kept under military guard in a slummy section of town named, you guessed it, District 9.

We’ve never seen aliens like these. They’re far from the evil monsters in Independence Day, but even further from the intelligent, angelic beings in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or the Vulcans from Star Trek: First Contact. Though they look like giant ugly crab mantises with an extra set of tiny T-Rex arms on their pelvis, the aliens act more like uneducated and aimless immigrants. They seem hopeless, defeated, and oddly relatable. I found myself cringing and upset when prawns were killed, perhaps moreso than some of the human characters. Thousands trade food rations and money for cans of catnip, which affect the “prawns,” as the locals call them, much like heroin might affect a human. The public is tired of dealing with the prawns, who they see as a menace, and have outsourced control over the alien settlement to Multi-National United (MNU), which is a corporation accountable to almost no one.

There are correlations to the South African apartheid here, and I’m sure some will brand District 9 as shallow because of this, but it’s unfair to limit the movie’s scope. While the prawn situation may have similarities to the apartheid, humans have been oppressing each other as long as we’ve existed. 

I was surprised to learn that Neill Blomkamp and Sharlto Copley (Wikus van der Merwe) chose to improvise a lot of the dialogue in the film. It pays off. Copley is not a trained actor, but is a believable pencil pusher, more concerned with how he comes across on film than how he is treating the prawns as he evicts them from their homes. As the story progresses, Wikus takes center stage and we follow his journey from a blank face to someone who has real power. He goes through a lot of changes, and I mean, a lot. Still, when the film begins intimately focusing on his journey, the grander epic is shelved in favor of theater-friendly action and gore. 

Anyone who’s seen Heavenly Creatures can tell Peter Jackson had a hand in District 9, which takes full advantage of its R rating. It has a lot of gore. Most of it is caused by prawn weapons, which don’t just kill people, they explode them in a burst of blood and organs. Though the grotesque doesn’t end with gun shooting. Characters lose teeth and limbs, among other things. If you’re someone who gets queezy during movies (I am), this might be hard to watch at times. I felt sick for a few minutes in the second act, though The Exorcist made me feel a bit ill too, so my stomach is a bit wimpy.

I like District 9, and want it to succeed because it represents so much that has been missing from theaters this year. It is an original screenplay, made independently on a low $30 million budget, has no brand, and takes us someplace we haven’t been. Ultimately though, while I think it saved this summer season, Neill Blomkamp’s epic is afraid to really tackle the rough human issues it opens. Instead, we’re introduced to his world, eat a little catnip, and go on a wild ride.

Score: 4 out of 5 (Great, but not Amazing)

Reader Comments (4)

Actually, about the gore, it was mostly Blomkamp's design, although Jackson was more than happy to go along with it. Watch Blomkamp's recent interview talking about the evolution of the aliens and their weaponry.

August 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPacoBell

Heya, I took a look at that. Thanks for the tip! I can't believe Jackson didn't encourage it though. Haha. From the looks of it, they fed off each other.

August 22, 2009 | Registered CommenterJeffrey Van Camp

I'd eat some catnip or catfood with you sailor. Even if your girlfriend will cry because of it.

August 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterD Step

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